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Illustration by Tonia Zhang

Explained: Effective Altruism at NYUAD

An exploration of the meaning and approaches to Effective Altruism and a glimpse into the EA@NYUAD SIG on campus.

Imagine you are walking down an empty street to have lunch, when you hear a yell. Just off the road you see a child thrashing around in a shallow pond, trying to keep their head above water. Do you save them, even though it would certainly ruin the expensive shoes you bought recently?
If you have even a modicum of empathy you would save the kid, at the cost of ruining your shoes. In fact, you would probably think it is deeply immoral not to save the kid, and would have a hard time trusting someone who values their shoes more than a child’s life.
Now imagine that same kid was suffering from a preventable disease in an underdeveloped nation, and that all you had to do to save the child was donate to an organization in the said country. Somehow, that does not feel as reprehensible as ignoring the drowning child. But is it?
In his now famous essay Famine, Morality, and Affluence, Peter Singer argues there is no relevant moral difference between the two cases: there is a victim, and in both cases, there is no morally significant cost that prevents you, the bystander, from helping out.
Enter effective altruism.
Effective altruism, or EA, is a movement that seeks to maximize positive impact in the world. As defined by the Centre for Effective Altruism, it seeks to answer the question: how can we use our resources to help others the most? While the answer to that question will depend heavily on your personal context, there are a few principles foundational to effective altruism.
The first one among these involves quantifying altruism, in order to know which interventions are the best to donate to or work on, and to maximize the impact of each dollar you donate. Another is incentivizing people to donate more, an area in which EA has been, for the lack of a better term, very effective: thousands of people have decided to donate a portion of their income to effective charities every year, through public commitments such as the Giving What We Can pledge. EA also calls for using not just your money but also your time, leading many effective altruists to choose careers that will allow them to do the most good throughout their lives.
What is the most good you can do? Contemplating this question can lead you to some interesting considerations. For example, you might decide food security in a given foreign nation is a very pressing problem, but you might not be best prepared to solve it — you perhaps do not know that country’s language, culture or norms. However, you might be in the best position to give a part of your wealth towards solving the issue or have the skills necessary to assist those leading the change. In this way, you would not necessarily be leading the change from the driver's seat, but you will be contributing as a helpful passenger.
“Effective altruism is people using their ability to effect change using their own hands, rather than waiting for some kind of society upheaval,” explained Aditya Balakrishnan, Class of 2024. To an effective altruist, it does not matter who the person influencing change is, so long as the change is happening.
There are many more ways one can use their resources effectively to help others, even from their own community. One example is by starting a student interest group at NYU Abu Dhabi, which is exactly what Koki Ajiri, Class of 2022, did. He first learned about effective altruism through Singer’s book The Most Good You Can Do at the recommendation of a staff member.
“It’s like applying leverage,” said Ajiri. “EA is a rather inspiring concept, and I hope the SIG can be an intermediary through which we can introduce this idea to 1200, 1500 students dedicated to making the world a better place. ”
His reasons for beginning the group can be summed up by the following idea: “It is far more effective to inspire people who will go on to become global leaders because they will be in a position to effect much more change [than I could by myself].”
So far this semester, the EA@NYUAD SIG has held four workshops and events, covering topics all the way from ethics to views on altruism. During a workshop called “Objections to Effective Altruism,” done in collaboration with SIG advisor Matthew Silverstein, professor and program head of Philosophy, participants asked questions and deepened their understanding of what effective altruism is.
In November, EA@NYUAD will be collaborating with Veggie Might on an animal welfare workshop that will go over the reality of factory farming and what can be done by potential effective altruists at NYUAD to help mitigate that damage. The plans are even bolder for the future, though.
“I plan to collaborate with other EA organizations and experts in the country, because [the UAE] is still a rather under cultivated environment for EA,” said Ajiri. “I hope we can enhance our outreach to have a greater presence on campus and have more synergy with existing organizations on campus: Veggie Might, Greenhouse, Bioengineering SIG, the Public Health Think Tank, among others.”
“It’s been amazing being on the SIG… I’ve learned more about EA, and I love how supportive our community is,” said Sharon Lee, Class of 2022, who is responsible for the SIG’s engagement. “As a person who doesn’t know much about EA… I feel very comfortable sharing the limitation of my knowledge.”
Lee also added that her involvement with the SIG has made her reevaluate her actions, even if it can be difficult sometimes. “What’s the best action I can take? Pondering over that takes a lot of time, concentration, and effort, and sometimes I end up not doing anything,” she explained. “I’m putting a lot more thought in my actions, but it has become a lot more difficult in that way.”
A great lesson in EA is that some action is better than none, even if that action is imperfect. EA is not about relinquishing everything you have, but rather about being aware of how much good every person can do, and knowing how you can increase your own impact.
“I’m getting a more concrete idea of what I want to do in the future,” Lee added. “Understanding EA has also made me believe that even if I don’t end up doing the most morally correct [action]... I will still have an ample opportunity to help people.”
Joao Bosco de Lucena is a contributing writer. Email him at
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